Lush landscaping for a mid-century modern home

Bold shapes and foliage soften a home's angular lines
Sharon Cohoon

Good designs are sometimes like good intentions: They start off right but can veer off track, losing sight of their original direction.

That's what happened at Gary and Cindy Bonifield's home in San Luis Obispo, California. Built in 1961, it had strong, clean lines and lots of windows with good views. The front window had the best one, looking out toward Cerro San Luis mountain and Bishop Peak. The architect had taken full advantage of that view, angling the house so it faced the two mountains head-on, which created a series of triangular landscaping spaces whose angularity made the house look even more modern.

Problem was, the landscaping fought the intent of the house. The strong line of junipers in the parkway, marching resolutely downhill, was so insistent that you noticed little else. Trees blurred the home's clean outlines. And too many verticals ― all those pickets in the fence and rails on the upper deck ― fought its clearly horizontal style.

Landscape architect Jeffrey Gordon Smith helped the Bonifields resolve these problems. He removed the offending landscape, replaced the existing fence with an ipe wood screen that has definite horizontal lines, and used ipe supports and nearly invisible wire cable for the balcony railing. Smith and the Bonifields decided to repaint the house from sunny yellow ― more suitable for a cottage ― to a contemporary earthy buff that enhances the home's striking shape.

With the removal of an overgrown pyracantha, the front door was finally visible. But the steps leading to it still looked daunting, even treacherous; they went straight up, without landings or railing. "Most people used the driveway instead," Cindy says. Smith designed new stairs with much wider steps and several switchbacks along the way to slow the journey, plus generous landings that encourage pausing to admire the landscape en route.

 

Tapestry of plants

Cindy wanted a modern and drought-tolerant landscape, but definitely not a minimalist one. "I love plants and I wanted a real garden," she says. Smith included lots of her favorite ornamental grasses; plenty of sturdy Mediterranean staples such as rosemary, lavender, and phlomis; and a generous helping of sculptural species like agaves, aeonium, and euphorbia. He used these plants in broad sweeps to create strong patterns, and employed curves to contrast with the angularity of the triangular spaces.

Smith cautions against basing a landscape color scheme on flowers: "They're too ephemeral, and the two plants you were counting on to bloom at the same time never do." Leaves alone can provide lots of color, as this garden demonstrates.

Thanks to the texture and color variation in the foliage, the landscape looks good even without flowers, but there's enough seasonal interest to make it feel like a real garden as well. "I know I've said this about every home we've lived in," Cindy says, "but this truly is the best garden I've owned."

Design: Jeffrey Gordon Smith Landscape Architecture , Baywood Park, CA (805/528-2118)

Lessons from this makeover

Mass plants for drama. Long lines, swooping arches, and big circles of a single type of plant always catch the eye.

Honor your climate and natural surroundings. The golden hills that surround San Luis Obispo influenced Jeffrey Gordon Smith's design: Ornamental grasses play up tawny shades, and foliage shares the gray-green of native plants.

Design a landscape from the house out. Outlining the edges of the property first and then moving inward is a common mistake, Smith says. He recommends designing from the vantage point of indoors looking out. "If it makes sense from that viewpoint, it will also look good from the street."

Be retro and contemporary. Use materials suitable to the era of your house, but take advantage of modern innovations too. Concrete and aggregate, common in the 1960s, made them appropriate for the Bonifields' landscape. But integral color concrete, a newer choice, let Smith use a hardscape hue that blends in better with the surrounding hills.